It’s an old mantra for football analysts, but if there was ever a time to go for it on fourth down, it was in the MNF nightcap for Oakland. Their long snapper was out with a concussion early, making punts a risky proposition. However, at the end of the first half, the Raiders signaled their intentions by settling for a field goal on fourth and one from the one yard line, despite trailing 10-3 at the time.
That decision was probably the wrong one — Oakland didn’t get inside the 20 again until the game was out of reach — but failing to score the touchdown would have been a tough on morale, so it’s semi-understandable early in the game (TMQ was frantically scribbling “game over” in his notebook, of course). However, the second half became comical. Oakland had two fourth and ones between the 20s in the third quarter. On the first, the second string long snapper bounced it up to Shane Lechler, who wisely tucked the ball and fell forward to avoid a block (“GAME OVER” in all caps). On the second, the snap was okay, but someone missed an assignment and the punt was easily blocked (“GAME OVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”).
The Raiders defense didn’t get the memo, though, and played their tails off, holding the Chargers to successive field goals (it helped that Phil Rivers seems legitimately afraid of the blitz). When the Raiders faced a third and 21 later on, they were still in the game, and they should have thought ahead. As innovate Kevin Kelley of Pulaski Academy in Little Rock puts it (the man who inspired Louisiana-Monroe’s strategy in their gutsy upset of Arkansas on Saturday),
If you get to the point where you know you’re going to go for it no matter what, you don’t even get in that situation because it changes the dynamics of the play-calling. We don’t have to throw on third-and-6 because we know we still have fourth down.
Well, when you can’t snap the ball, third and six might as well be third and 21. Instead, Carson Palmer heaved a desperation 25 yard pass with little chance of success, the Raiders decided to punt, and, lo and behold, the snap dribbled back to Lechler just in time for him to get hammered again.
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. The Raiders are on their tenth coach since 1995. Tom Cable and Hue Jackson were both fired after posting 8-8 records in 2010 and 2011, respectively (showing improvement from a 5-11 campaign in 2009). The Oakland coaching carousel may have encouraged new man Dennis Allen to play to keep it close, not to win. In that environment, it’s safer to punt (and blame the backup long snapper if needed) than to take a chance.
Random Additional Notes
The game had a couple other interesting situations (including two of my favorite opportunities for innovation):
- Both Curtis Brinkley (really dynamic backup running back for the Chargers) and Darren McFadden (Raiders) had a chance for the “running back throwaway” in the fourth quarter. The idea here is simple: chuck the ball past the line of scrimmage and out of bounds on sweeps that are bottled up. Instead, Brinkley lost 5 or 6 yards and McFadden lost 11 (putting the Raiders in the third and 21 mentioned above and keeping the clock running).
- The final series was bizarre. Up eight, the Chargers had to run off 54 seconds (the Raiders had two timeouts). They could have run it off easily in three downs by scooting around the backfield but instead ran into the line twice, leaving 3 seconds on fourth down. No matter — as I discussed in my football riddle last year (and Trent Dilfer mentioned on air), a roll out and throwaway can kill 7 or 8 seconds. Instead, the Chargers brought in the punter (did they watch the same game I did with three failed punts?). The snap was good, and I thought the punter would just eat it, but he actually punted! Not to be outdone, the Raiders put no one back to receive the kick, and TMQ breathed a sigh of relief.
- On their final drive, the Raiders had to go for it on fourth down anyway. Guess what? They converted a fourth and five and a fourth and three (on incomplete passes, saved by defensive penalties). Along with the usual reasons, I suspect that teams punt too often early in games because they want to put off the pain — a standard procrastination argument. If you’re losing, you probably have to take chances at some point to get back in it. Avoiding the small risks early on and punting is like putting a charge on your credit card: it costs nothing at the time, but it would be better to swallow the pill upfront, because it comes back with interest as the clock winds down (the Raiders’ desperation conversions were longer yardage situations but the clock gave them no choice).